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The Unusual Suspects 4: Jonah Lehrer Either Or and Sometimes And

A few weeks before BIF5, I wrote a small catalyst note for an upcoming article. I wrote “Either/Or and Sometimes And” 

This was followed by a borrowed mathematical term “binary thinking.”

Basically, the vague thought was about how many companies approach innovation. It is an either/or proposition. Generally, they know two things about innovation from the media. One is innovate or die. And the other is that a high percentage of innovation efforts fail.

Both are right and both are gross misinterpretations of how innovation can work in a company.  The typical decision model focuses on alternate choices but I notice the simple word “and” is not used as an innovation tool.

All of which brings me to Jonah Lehrer. A 29-year-old graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer is the author such books called How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Think of Lehrer as the Carl Sagan of the brain.  He has a remarkable ability to translate the complex functioning of the brain, as well as the latest research, into humanese. 

At BIF5, he took the stage and gave the audience a provocative “And.”  “We weren’t designed to be rational creatures,” Lehrer asserts. “Instead the mind is a messy network of different areas, many of which are involved in the production of emotion.  The simple truth is that making good decisions requires us to use both sides of the mind. For too long, we’ve treated human nature as an either/or situation. We are either rational or irrational.  Not only are these dichotomies false, they are destructive,” he adds. “Our brains are definitely pluralistic.”

At BIF, he talked about Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. In the early 1990s, Damasio began publishing a series of landmark papers describing the symptoms of patients who, after a brain injury, were unable to perceive or experience emotion. Most scientists assumed that such a deficit would lead to more rational decisions, since the patients were free of their irrational instincts.

Damasio found just the opposite: these dispassionate patients made consistently bad decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; others started drinking heavily and getting into fights; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. The takeaway? When people are cut off from their emotions even the most banal decisions become all but impossible.

While this research has led to a new appreciation for the powers of the unconscious - it's no longer seen as a bizarre Freudian underworld - this brain system isn't perfect.

According to Lehrer, there are lots of unconscious cognitive hiccups, isolating the "heuristics and biases" that cause people to do everything from overbid on eBay to not invest in their 401(k). “These flaws are rooted in a part of the mind that people can't control - the unconscious is often referred to as the "automatic system" - so intelligence is no antidote.”

Lehrer is like a good referee, he brought an appreciation for seeing the brain as a complex system with a host of checks and balances.  And that for truly effective decision making it’s not either or, it’s an “and.” 

A lesson for companies is not to see innovation as a go or no go.  It's about creating value whether it begins with a small team (Like Humana's wellness initiative) or a widespread innovation culture like GE or IDEO.

For some more insights into Lehrer, check out:



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